Jewish World Review Jan. 2, 2003 / 28 Teves, 5763
President Bush has announced plans to accelerate deployment of a national
ballistic missile defense. North Korea's threat to "destroy the earth" if
the United States doesn't do what it wants suggests the reason why.
The president wants to deploy 10 interceptors in Alaska and California in
2004, 10 more in 2005, and 20 on Navy Aegis cruisers. Bush has ordered
deployment before the test schedule originally contemplated has been
completed. On Dec. 11th, the Missile Defense Agency conducted its 8th
interception test, and suffered its third failure. The usual suspects say
this proves missile defense won't work.
The task of terminal defense, which this system is designed to provide, is
inherently difficult. We are trying to hit "a bullet with a bullet," to
intercept a warhead traveling at speeds of more than 25 times the speed of
sound with a "kinetic kill vehicle" (KKV). The impact of the collision
causes the warhead to disintegrate.
But the tests conducted to date indicate our engineers are up to the task.
Neither the failure Dec. 11, nor the two previous failures, were the product
of a defect in the basic technology. The two earlier failures were the
result of a clogged cooling pipe and a failure to transmit data from a piece
of equipment that has worked fine for decades in Minuteman missiles.
Indications are a loose wire was responsible for the most recent mishap.
These failures raise some disturbing questions about quality control, and
emphasize the need for redundancy. To have a 95 percent chance of a
successful intercept, we need to target three interceptors on each incoming
warhead. If we use four interceptors, the probability of success rises to 99
percent. But the test failures do not challenge the basic feasibility of the
The Union of Concerned Scientists and others who used to argue that missile
defense was "impossible" are reduced now to claiming that it is expensive,
and that no system can guarantee 100 percent success. We'll spend $6.7
billion on national missile defense this year, which is a lot of money. But
wouldn't it cost more to replace San Francisco or Los Angeles? And isn't a
95 percent plus probability of intercept better than zero?
Missile defenses provide us with a means of resisting nuclear blackmail
without an immediate resort to war. North Korea has at least two nuclear
warheads, and the capacity to produce perhaps 100 more in a year if it is
not stopped from reopening the Yongbyon reactor. North Korea also has an
ICBM that can reach the West Coast of the United States. Without missile
defenses, we'd have to take military action very soon to prevent an
unacceptably dangerous nuclear proliferation. That could spark another
Korean war. With missile defense, there is time for diplomacy and
international economic sanctions to work.
Japan is taking a belated, but urgent interest in missile defense.
Fortunately, it is technologically simpler to provide tactical and theater
missile defenses than intercontinental defenses. The higher missiles go up
into space, the faster their warheads come down. ICBM warheads approach
their targets at much faster speeds than do tactical missiles like the Scud.
Sea-based systems provide the opportunity for boost phase intercept, which,
comparatively speaking, is child's play. Missiles on the way up are big (the
warhead has not separated from the booster), hot (the booster is still
burning), and slow (the rocket is fighting gravity to get out of the
atmosphere, not being pulled by gravity toward its target). Warheads on the
way down are small, cold and fast. A few Aegis cruisers off the North Korean
coast effectively could defend both Japan and America. Missile defenses will
become even more effective in the near future when airborne lasers - and
perhaps spaceborne lasers - come on line.
Missile defense is technologically feasible, economically affordable, and
urgently necessary. Yet some say we should forego missile defense because it
was banned by a 1972 treaty with the now defunct Soviet Union. But when
President Bush withdrew from the ABM treaty last year, there was nary a peep
from the Russians.
Those who oppose missile defense call themselves doves. But they behave like
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© 2002, Jack Kelly